Thursday, July 21, 2016

For a soldier, sailor or slave? Discovered Fort McAllister coffin intrigues archaeologists

(Courtesy of Historic Preservation Division, Georgia DNR)
Fort McAllister and the Ogeechee River (Library of Congress)

Rachel Black, deputy state archaeologist in Georgia, has posed a question that currently has no answer but offers a range of fascinating possibilities: Why was a coffin placed in a marsh near a Civil War fort, and who put it there?

The mystery began on a spring day in 2013 when an employee at Fort McAllister State Park, south of Savannah, was on routine patrol west of the Confederate fortifications. She came across what appeared to be a coffin protruding a few inches below the surface on the marsh’s edge.

One of Black’s colleagues was called to the site near the Ogeechee River and confirmed the hexagonal box was indeed a coffin. It was missing its lid and there appeared to be no human remains. The boards had separated and were surrounded by packed sediment.

“It had become exposed because of erosion,” said Black. “It was completely intact. The nails had completely disintegrated.”

In the years since, Black – who made a poster on her research in April for a meeting of the Society for American Archaeology – has looked at a range of possibilities of why the coffin was buried or left in the marsh:

-- Did the plain, pine box hold the remains of a slave? Fort McAllister sits on Genesis Point, once home to a large rice plantation. There’s a known slave cemetery to the west near Strathy Hall, which was built in the 18th century.

-- Could this have been a burial for a Confederate soldier or sailor, or perhaps a Union soldier stationed there after the fort fell in December 1864 during Sherman’s March to the Sea?

-- Or was the coffin discarded and never used? Trevor Johnston, interpretive ranger at the park, said it may have been left after remains of soldiers from both sides were disinterred and it was not needed. There is evidence of a historic dump in the area.

“When I first started the background research I was hoping it was part of (a) slave cemetery,” Black told The Picket. “The more I researched, I am more leaning that it was more associated with the fort and it might be a soldier.”

'Very simple, very plain box'

(Hole cut into side panel of coffin, right -- Photo Georgia DNR)

Black wrote about the coffin in the May issue of “Preservation Posts,” the online journal of the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Based on the use of cut nails, the coffin likely was built prior to the 1890s, said Black. The rectangular casket became far more prevalent by the turn of the 20th century.

Archaeologists discovered a small hole on each of the side panels. “I honestly don’t know what they were for. I have never seen this,” Black said. Perhaps the holes were drilled so that a rope could be used to lower the coffin.

The box was about 68 inches long and could have accommodated a person about 5 feet, 6 inches, a common height for a man in the mid-19th century. It was oriented with the head to the west, customary in many Christian burials.

Sediment at the bottom of the coffin was fibrous, possibly remnants of a Spanish moss liner.

“It is a very simple, very plain box,” said Black. There is not much to indicate a lot of money was spent on this burial. They might have constructed one right on site.  … I think it was very well made with the materials they had.”

She sent a photo of the coffin to a paleobotanist in hopes of learning more about the pine boards.

Interestingly, the bottom of the coffin was made from two pieces. One is thicker than the other, so the head plate on one was made even by the coffin maker, who likely used a hand plane tool. That’s evidence of someone who had experience in working with wood.

“The preservation of the wood is just outstanding. It was inundated by water probably for the majority of its life,” Black said. After the discovery, the coffin was immediately submerged in a protective vat of water.

War comes to rice plantations

Before the Civil War, Genesis Point and other portions of coastal Georgia were home to large rice plantations.

Research indicates a Capt. James MacKay purchased the property around what became the fort in 1748. He built nearby Strathy Hall and began rive cultivation. George Washington McAllister bought Strathy Hall and Genesis Point in 1817. After the Civil War broke out, his son, Joseph, donated land to the Confederacy for the construction of a fort named for his father.

Troops at Fort McAllister battled monotony and Union naval forces for three years, finally falling to land troops on Dec. 13, 1864.

(Courtesy of Fort McAllister State Park)

Among the Rebel units stationed at Fort McAllister, was the local Republican Blues. A member of the Blues in 1863 drew a map of the fort and showed the McAllister plantation on the western edge. It’s not clear whether that location is accurate.

Black wrote that records indicate an abundance of plantation activities were in the area of the coffin. In many cases, slave cemeteries are unmarked “and are lost over time.”

Black told The Picket she suspects there was a cemetery on Genesis Point, but she and Johnston say no evidence of one has been found.  Since only the single coffin has been found, that has led the archaeologist to believe it could be more likely associated with the Civil War fort.

In his book “Guardian of Savannah,” Roger S. Durham includes an account of a burial written by William Dixon of the Republican Blues.

“Sunday 6th [March] 1864 … The Emmett Rifles arrived here this morning … Priv Murphy of that company died on board of the boat last night. He complained yesterday of feeling unwell but nothing was thought of it and this morning he was found dead. He was buried here this afternoon.”

Red areas show Strathy Hall, fort site (Fort McAllister State Park)

Joseph McAllister, a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate cavalry, was killed in Virginia in 1864. After the war, Strathy Hall and Genesis Point were sold to a nephew of McAllister's who owned them until 1924. Fort McAllister fell into ruin until the 1930s, when it was restored as a site for the public through funding from auto magnate Henry Ford, who owned the land. It now belongs to the state.

Black said the banks of the Ogeechee River at Genesis Point are eroding rapidly for several reasons, including increased river traffic.

Awaits long-term conservation

The coffin may have more to tell.

Its shoulder joints -- a recess or groove cut that allows boards to be joined – were made with what is called a rabbet technique.

Black said marine archaeologists she spoke with at the April conference suggested such a style was common in shipbuilding.

“It could have been they were there on the Ogeechee. They had soldiers and supplies coming in” to Fort McAllister.

The archaeologist says she wants to do more analysis and look into the rabbeting. Until funding is secured and long-term conservation begins, the coffin remains in water.

Black hopes the public gets to see the reconstructed coffin one day. “Ideally… I would like to see it conserved  ... (and formed) back into its box shape, and see it on display at Fort McAllister, at least part time.”

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